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Now that the end is truly coming into focus, the This Is Us cast is not ready to say goodbye.
During a panel with many of the Pearson clan on Friday, the actors who make up the hit NBC family drama reiterated creator Dan Fogelman’s promise that the series finale will deliver and satisfy viewers, while also warning of an — as to be expected — emotional ride before arriving at the end.
“I was gutted,” said Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays Beth Pearson, during the network’s scripted press day at TCAs, virtually attended by The Hollywood Reporter. “Be wary, be on guard,” echoed Sterling K. Brown (Randall Pearson) of his onscreen wife’s comments. “The shit they have coming hits different.”
The beloved TV couple was specifically referencing the impending divorce of Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) and Toby Damon (Chris Sullivan), another marriage viewers have rooted for since the start of the series. After sprinkling some hints, Fogelman and the This Is Us team confirmed that the twosome, also parents to two toddlers, don’t make it in their marriage. The fifth season finale jumped forward to show Kate on her future second wedding day, this time to her boss, played by Chris Geere.
“If divorce is something that happens to 50 percent of marriages, I think you can assume that while divorce will be sad and ugly, we’ll also find some way to make it human and, in its own way, beautiful,” said Fogelman during the panel about Kate and Toby. The actors who play them were the only two missing actors, which gave the others an opportunity to praise their upcoming storyline. Milo Ventimiglia (Jack Pearson), Mandy Moore (Rebecca Pearson), Justin Hartley (Kevin Pearson) and Jon Huertas (Miguel Rivas) were all on hand, along with Sterling, Watson and Fogelman.
The first five episodes of the final season have already been released, with the show on a brief hiatus until Feb. 22. For the cast, however, they are closer to the end, with only six episodes remaining to be filmed. Fogelman said an upcoming episode directed by Moore and co-written by Metz herself will begin the journey to the end of Katie and Toby’s marriage, and that the episode capturing their decision is one of the scripts he’s most proud of across the entire series.
“We’ve always tried to just make the show about what happens to people, and divorce is something that happens almost as frequently as it doesn’t — and it hasn’t happened [yet] on this show,” he explained. “The great majority of love stories start with wonderful love stories and marriages, and the ones that end in divorce often end in difficult and different situations. We’ve been talking a lot in our writers room about how marriages and divorces are kind of like snowflakes, how no two are exactly the same, but there can be commonality.”
Kate and Toby, the latter who recently accepted a job in San Francisco, have been struggling but nonetheless trying to make their household work while Toby is away from the family during the workweek. Fogelman says the distance is the circumstance that brings elements about their marriage into focus.
“The way Kate and Toby came together, I always thought, was beautiful and romantic, but was also imperfect. It was two people who often needed different things at different times, and there were lots of conversations early on about whether they were good for one another,” he says of the couple, who first met in a weight loss support group, and how their dissolution will unfold. “The prism of which we view humanity and people in the show, is that … people are flawed and messed up and make terrible mistakes, but inherently, there’s a decency and a beauty to the human existence and to the human experience.”
The sixth and final season, which will have 18 episodes, began airing on Jan. 4, and the series finale is set for May 24. The first handful of episodes have zeroed in on each of the families in the present day as they adapt to their shifting relationships and growing children, as well as the reality of mother Rebecca’s (Moore) early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis. One recent bottle episode also saw the tear-jerker drama flash back to when Pearson patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) lost his mother, when the Big Three were young children.
Of that hour, scene partner Moore noted that watching Ventimiglia’s performance as Jack at his mother’s funeral was a moment she will always treasure. “Because Jack is so stoic and is able to be there for his family, his wife, his kids in every capacity and, knowing just what a strong man you are, Milo, watching you completely lose it and break, my heart was just in my throat,” she said. Collectively, the cast turned it back on Moore and praised her years-spanning performance of Rebecca from age 16 to 80-something. In particular, the cast spoke about being awed by a seven-minute monologue that Rebecca will deliver to her grown children in an upcoming episode, a moment that Fogelman says “very much sets up the back half of the season.”
When speaking to THR at the start of the final run, Fogelman said this season would begin with a slow build as it returned to its roots: a focus on the nostalgia of growing up and the nostalgia of being a grown-up looking back.
“Somewhere along the line, the big mysteries of what happened with Jack’s death and what we were able to tease with moments in the future and mysteries arriving — these bigger, soap opera elements — always get so much of the attention when, at its core, the show was always about the really small and really simple stuff that comes with being part of a family,” explained the writer and creator. “In the final season, more than ever, because there’s nothing left to throw forward to tease or surprise with after the season, we were able to go back toward that very beginning and sit in the really small, simple stuff that’s hopefully very relatable and that everyone can see a part of themselves reflected in.”
Some of those mysteries have started to unravel quickly, with This Is Us introducing viewers to the woman whom Randall was seen embracing in the big flash-forward to Rebecca’s death bed: Edie (Vanessa Bell Calloway), wife to Uncle Nicky Pearson (Griffin Dunne). And, on Tuesday, Fogelman confirmed that the final season will spend more time than the show ever has in all of three of the future timelines that have been set up: Kate’s second wedding; Rebecca’s “death house,” as they say they refer to it; and with grown-up Jack Jr., son to Kate and Toby, in the deeper future.
Upon all of this reflection and teasing what’s to come — and as Fogelman begins to write the final scripts — no one could rule out the possibility of reuniting again in the future with a movie — or at least a cast special, à la Friends.
“I say ‘no’ to nothing. Sure, if we can figure out a movie down the road? I would love to get back together with these guys and do it,” said Fogelman, while also setting expectations. “This is very much the plan [to end it]. It’s not because we don’t have any more story to tell, it’s because we exactly planned it this way.”
With a complete story by its end and, as Fogelman predicts, a cast who is sure to be busy with other projects for years to come, what could the plot of the movie even be, if everyone were available in the future?
“Are you doing the movie of like, what would have happened if Jack had survived the fire, or something?” he posited.
When Hartley commented, “There’s your movie,” the creator revealed that the president of NBC was real-time messaging him, “Yes to the movie.”
Amid laughs, Brown reiterated, “Never say never!”
This Is Us returns Tuesday, Feb. 22, on NBC.
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